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Patriots 49, Bills 21 | WEB EXCLUSIVE

Patriots beat Bills, clinch top seed in AFC

New England erases early Buffalo lead with 49 unanswered points

Patriots defensive backs Antwaun Molden (27), Devin McCourty (32) and Patrick Chung (25) celebrated after McCourty intercepted a pass from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff) Patriots defensive backs Antwaun Molden (27), Devin McCourty (32) and Patrick Chung (25) celebrated after McCourty intercepted a pass from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter.
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 1, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH – When the Patriots traveled to Buffalo in Week 3, they raced out to a three-touchdown lead against the Bills and looked to be well on their way to extending their win streak against their AFC East foe before Buffalo began staging a comeback that ultimately led to their first victory over New England since 2003.

So perhaps it was only fitting that in their rematch, on the final day of the NFL regular season, it was the Bills who had an early three-touchdown lead, only to hand it all back.

New England locked up the top seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of its 49-21 win against Buffalo, though once again it took a come-from-behind effort. Last week against Miami, the Pats dug themselves a 17-0 hole in the first half before turning things around after halftime.

"It’s not planned that way. There’s no panic," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "I don’t feel like the guys on the sidelines really panic. I just feel like it’s really a matter of execution and we started executing better and we put points on the board. It was a fun day to finish 13-3 and to win our last eight in a row has been really good. We just have to continue to get better and have a good week this week and get ready for our toughest game of the year."

The Patriots will have next weekend off as they await an opponent for the AFC Divisional playoff round Jan. 14-15. The Patriots (13-3) will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Brady became just the third player in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season, and the second to top 5,100 yards.

"I play this game for one reason and it’s to win. There’s nothing more important to me than that," Brady said. "As a quarterback you do everything you can do to help this team win. When your number is called upon to go out and execute certain plays, that’s what you’re expected to do. It’s not something I think about, it’s not something I ever [think], ‘Man, I love throwing touchdowns,’ or ‘I love throwing for yards.’ I love winning and that helps me sleep at night."

Despite concerns about his left shoulder, the 12th-year veteran finished the day 23 for 35 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He finished the season with 5,235 yards. The Saints' Drew Brees eclipsed the mark in Week 16 and added to his total Sunday vs. the Panthers to finish with an NFL single-season record 5,486.

"It’s great playing at home. It’s great to have a bye but I think we have to concentrate here this week on what we need to do to play our best football in a couple weeks," Brady said.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who earlier in the season set the NFL single-season record for receiving touchdowns, set a single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Gronkowski caught eight passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Both he and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham broke the previous record of 1,290 yards, held for more than 30 yards by Kellen Winslow, who set the mark in 1980 with the Chargers.

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said this week that the Pats owed the Bills after that Week 3 loss and receiver Wes Welker felt “absolutely” that he and Brady would play the entire game with New England in pursuit of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

For a while, the Patriots looked lackluster, seemingly forgetting the bigger-picture goal of being able to stay home in the postseason and the revenge factor.

On the seventh play of the game, with Buffalo having just converted on fourth-and-1 in their own territory, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked deep for receiver Derek Hagan. Hagan and Pats’ cornerback Antwaun Molden got tangled up, and Hagan fell to the turf. A flag was thrown, and the pass interference call gave the Bills first down from the New England 4.

On second down, Fitzpatrick gave the ball to Tashard Choice, and he took it in for a touchdown.

New England went three-and-out on its first possession, and the Bills came right back, scoring again on a 10-play, 70 yard drive.

Fitzpatrick found Stevie Johnson for an 18-yard touchdown.

After the score, Johnson lifted his jersey to reveal his t-shirt underneath, on which he had written “happy new year!” While the message was harmless, the move drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.

Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey benched Johnson, the team’s best receiver and a soon-to-be free agent, for the rest of the game.

"It definitely hurt that Stevie wasn’t out there. I don’t know what to tell you. I assume whatever he did, he didn’t think he would get a penalty for it. Unfortunately he got the penalty and Chan [Gailey] made the decision," Fitzpatrick said.

The Bills scored again on their third possession, with New England allowing five consecutive plays of 12 or more yards as they went ahead 21-0.

From that point on, however, the Pats defense, and a missed 45-yard field goal on the final play before halftime, kept Buffalo off the scoreboard.

As Brady led the Patriots back, he looked most often to his tight ends, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes and Hernandez, who finished with seven receptions for 138 yards, took one 44 yards for a touchdown.

The Patriots' defense, as has become its custom, settled down and began making plays – Sterling Moore had the first two interceptions of his career and returned one 21 yards for a touchdown, and Devin McCourty had a long interception return that gave the Pats a short field.

New England picked Fitzpatrick off four times.

"It was kind of like our season. It started off so well with the 21 points, and we had things rolling offensively. We were doing some good things on defense, stopping them," Fitzpatrick said. "We wanted to do some up-tempo stuff today, which worked early. It kept working, but when you get a sack, a penalty, a bad snap or don’t complete a pass or whatever it is, it puts you behind the sticks and makes it harder. But I thought we did a decent job with the up-tempo stuff today especially early, but when Stevie [Johnson] got taken out and Scott [Chandler] went down, it changed things for us. It slowed us down."

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